Then the market got completely fucking saturated with top hats cobbled together out of cardboard gear shapes, and everything went to hell. At least until game developers started utilizing the aesthetic without drowning in it. But that’s a different story.
“Even the level layouts, carefully crafted to give a sense of alien technology and age, speak of darker times no one should ever uncover.”
Rain Games’s Teslagrad is a 2D puzzle-platformer set in a steampunk world, following the exploits of a young boy as he follows in the footsteps of his father and attempts to overthrow an oppressive political regime long in power over his adoptive city.
After escaping to the outskirts of civilization, he discovers the lost remnants of a technologically advanced super society that once melded science with magic, creating ancient artifacts and terrible creatures that ultimately destroyed them. Using the artifacts, he journeys deep into the belly of the world, emerging as a being of incredible power bent on freeing his people and ultimately finding his dad.
It’s a neat tale told through visual cues rather than in-game dialog or text. Often times, the story has to be inferred from the scenery, kind of like how Jacques Tourneur never wanted the audience to see any cat people in Cat People. Ancient tableaus are carved into the stone around you, detailing the history of the world, and political iconography is heavily leaned upon in the more centralized districts to help the player grasp the gravity of where society currently stands.
Even the level layouts, carefully crafted to give a sense of alien technology and age, speak of darker times no one should ever uncover. It’s beautiful minimalist storytelling, and it fits really well with the gameplay proper, which is delightful in more ways than one.
Your little steampunk kid starts with the ability to climb walls. That’s it. And you’ll do that often as the guards of Orwellian city-states never seem to be into children running about willy-nilly. After escaping the confines of the city, you begin a Metroidvania trek through extensive cave systems, moss-covered ruins and the nightmarish remnants of an underworld torn apart by technological hubris. There you discover things like the magnetic fist, which can alter or create a magnetic charge that does everything from open doors to fire two-ton hunks of steel across open chasms.
There are the quantum boots, which can teleport you short distances through solid matter, a magnetic bubble that carries you through intense concentrations of magnetic energy and a high-powered tesla coil staff that disintegrates anyone or anything stupid enough to get in your way. Each is used to progress through part of the Metroid-style dungeons, and later, many need to be used at once in combinations that often demand very careful timing. Unlike Metroid or Castlevania or Zelda, one shot, and you’re toast. No amount of technology can change that.
“…channeling the spirits of industry greats”
There are challenge rooms and plenty of secrets for those inclined to find everything, most of which are incredibly difficult to collect, but the most interesting thing to me about Teslagrad is its message. No, there isn’t any dialogue, but between the massive bosses and zippy platforming is a tale of hubris over hubris as a small child is given impossible powers so that he may cast down the society raised from the ashes of those very same abilities.
It’s a charming, dark and at times beautiful game, with a great lore in place that plays out like a carnival Panopticum. A bit simple at times? Sure. But it’s channeling the spirits of industry greats, with enough of the new to really give you a great experience. Nothing wrong with that.